“If we cannot make globalisation work for everyone, in the end it will work for none.”
Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General, to assembled business leaders in Davos, January 1999
This was the quote that Harvard Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs, John G. Ruggie, used to kick off his lecture on “Embedding global markets: lessons from business and human rights” at University College London this week. And Ruggie, who served as United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning under Annan from 1997-2001, had some strong ideas on whether we, the global business community, have made any progress since 1999.
If you pick up any national business newspaper, you are likely to read about company A being caught up in a major oil spill or company B being involved in a corruption scandal. Working in the PR reputation management team, I was interested to find out what he thought businesses should do better…and I wasn’t disappointed.
A key argument that Ruggie made was that businesses have a duty to respect. This involves knowing and showing that the company is avoiding causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through its own operations and business relationships, and addressing such impacts when they occur. One of the examples Ruggie used was the late Steve Jobs allegedly having a change of heart at the last minute about the design of the iPhone 5. The launch date was set in stone so the only possibility that the Chinese supplier Foxconn thought it had was violating the rights of its workers, forcing them to work longer hours. The unsurprising consequence? The workers went on strike.
As we often do in PR, Ruggie took a stakeholder-led approach, claiming that, in order to improve, businesses should:
- IDENTIFY the impacts of their actions on people;
- EVALUATE their severity;
- PRIORITIZE for attention;
- INCORPORATE findings into relevant business functions;
- PREVENT and MITIGATE potential impacts;
- REMEDY actual impacts;
- DEVELOP indicators;
- MEASURE effectiveness;
- INFORM stakeholders wherever appropriate; and
- REPORT formally on significant risks.
So, coming back to Annan’s quote on globalisation from 1999, how far have we come? Ruggie’s answer: we still have a long way to go to set business/society relations right, often because what can be accomplished at the international level is tightly constrained by self-regarding states and pressures of global markets. On the upside, in the area of business and human rights we have covered a good distance in the past 15 years; By drawing lessons from what works and what doesn’t we can and must do better in the next 15.